Themes of Aging and Death

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Throughout The Pigman, all of the characters reveal their attitudes toward aging and, particularly, death. Death is frequently mentioned throughout the story, and one of the main themes of the book is how awareness of death and its finality eventually leads John and Lorraine to mature and take responsibility for their lives. This is not a lesson they could have learned from their families, or at school. As the book shows, most of the adults they encounter are not supportive, are unhelpful, and are too caught up in their own problems to help the teenagers sort out the answers to the deep questions they carry in their hearts. It takes the Pigman's life, and his death, to make them realize that they need to change their attitudes and their behavior toward both life and death.

Lorraine's mother, Mrs. Jensen, who ironically works as a private nurse for elderly and terminally ill people, has a callous attitude towards death. She steals things from her patients, calls them names like "old fossil," and is unmoved by their death, as shown by one of her conversations with Lorraine. Lorraine, who is far more sensitive, asks about the patient, "Did he die?" Her mother replies, "Of course he died. I told his daughter two days ago he wasn't going to last the week. Put some coffee water on." When referring to another patient, Lorraine's mother remarks, "I wish this one would go ahead and croak because her husband is getting a little too friendly lately." She's so consumed by her own past problems with her husband that she has no thought for the suffering of the sick woman she's taking care of.

Similarly, Mrs. Jensen is so wrapped up in her need for money that even a patient's death becomes a financial opportunity to look forward to. She gloats over the fact that the undertaker gives her ten dollars for every customer she refers to him, and she notes that she may switch to referring patients' families to another funeral home "when the next one croaks," because she's heard that they will give twenty dollars for the same favor.

John's father developed liver disease from excessive drinking, and although he quit drinking, his diagnosis evidently didn't make him reflect very deeply about his life. He lives a circumscribed, joyless, almost mechanical life; his mood is determined by how many lots he sells in a day, and he considers anything other than work to be "a waste of time." His job is extremely stressful, so stressful that John can't imagine doing it: "I've been over to the Exchange and seen all the screaming and barking he has to do just to earn a few bucks," he writes. Mr. Conlan is aware that eventually, all this "screaming and barking" and accumulated stress of his job will probably kill him, and he uses the threat of his own death as leverage to try and get John to agree to take over his business: "The business will be half yours, and you know it. I can't take the strain much longer." Mr. Conlan also reminds John, "Your mother isn't going to be around forever either, you know. When she's dead, you're going to wish to God you'd been nicer to her." This use of death as a tool to try and control his son's behavior is ineffective; although John is secretly disturbed by the fact that his parents will die someday, he's angered by his father's manipulation and negative attitude toward John's true dreams.

Mrs. Conlan never mentions death, just as she never mentions anything "unpleasant." Her days are spent in a whirl of anxious cleaning, smoothing things over, hovering between her husband and son. Whenever anything unpleasant arises, she either leaves the room, begins cleaning, or offers falsely cheery distractions, such as asking "Do you both want whipped cream and nuts on your strawberry whirl?" during an argument between John and his father.

Lorraine is more sensitive than either her mother or John about sickness, aging, and death. She tries to get John to stop smoking, she's bothered by her mother's crass attitudes towards the patients, and she is sympathetic to the situation of a teacher at her school whose aging and ill mother lives in the teacher's living room. "Who would want to marry a woman that keeps her sick mother in a bed right in the living room?" she wonders, thinking about how it must feel to be that teacher. As the story progresses, she notes morbid "omens" that, in hindsight, seem to indicate that something bad was going to happen, but also comments that she didn't see their meaning at the time they occurred. Unlike John, she accepts full responsibility for Mr. Pignati's death.

When Lorraine hears that Mr. Pignati's wife is dead, she realizes for the first time what a loss it must have been for him. All the things they shared—interests, activities, eating meals together, conversation—are gone. Of all the characters in the book, she's the only one who has any comprehension of the depth of his loss.

Despite the fact that Mr. Pignati can't even admit that his wife is dead, he is actually the only person in the book who is really confronting the depth of sadness and grief that death elicits in those left behind. He tries as hard as he can to believe that she's really only visiting his sister in California, not gone forever, because the pain of her loss is so great. Through his friendship with John and Lorraine, however, he comes to feel safe enough to begin dealing with his loss, and invites them to celebrate her personality and enjoyment in life by shopping for delicacies and visiting the zoo, things she loved. This enjoyment of life is the gift that he gives John and Lorraine—a gift they never received from their own families.

When Bobo the baboon dies, the zoo attendant who has looked after him has the same attitude toward his death that Mrs. Jensen has toward her patients. He says, "Can't say I feel particularly sorry about it because that baboon had the nastiest disposition around here." He is oblivious to the fact that Mr. Pignati loved the baboon and that his death is a devastating loss, just as Mrs. Jensen is oblivious to the fact that her patients' families may love them and grieve them deeply.

John, Lorraine, and some of the other kids from school like to hang out at the local cemetery, which they see mainly as a quiet place where they can drink and smoke in peace, since adults rarely go there. They reflect briefly on the people who are buried there, but it's in a distant, almost amused way—they use the presence of the dead as a sort of prop to scare each other, but they never think that someday, they, too, will be buried there. John lies on the grass and imagines that a buried corpse will stick its hands up through the earth and grab him, but then reflects that he would actually love to see a ghost, because he has no faith that there's any sort of life after this one, which is dreary enough. He writes, "I'm looking for anything to prove that when I drop dead there's a chance I'll be doing something a little more exciting than decaying." He envisions death as quick and immediate, not preceded by the years or months of suffering and loneliness experienced by Mrs. Jensen's patients, or, later in the book, by Mr. Pignati. And he doesn't reflect on what death really means—that life is fundamentally short, eventually it will end, and that ultimately, only he is responsible for what he does with his life.

John is aware that his father was once ill with liver disease and that he will probably die at a relatively young age because of the stress of his job, but he still half-jokes about it, not considering how the loss may affect him: "All the guys at the Exchange drop dead of heart attacks. They gather around this circle and bellow out bids all day long ..." He is cynical about his parents' death and is unmoved when his father mentions that his mother will die someday, because death is not yet real to him. He responds, "Oh Dad, can't you see all I want to do is be individualistic?" Because John has never experienced the loss of a truly loved one through death, his father's words are just an empty threat, a game parents play to manipulate their kids and make their kids feel guilty, and this game makes John feel frustrated and angry.

John has seen dead people before, when he attended funerals of distant relatives. Because he is so alienated from his family, the deaths didn't mean much to him, and he was unmoved at the funerals, where even seeing the dead people didn't bother him. He viewed them as if they were large stuffed dolls, and said, "So many things to look at. Anything to get away from what was really happening." In saying this, he has found one source of his unhappiness: alienation, detachment, disconnection, which is fostered by the emotional disconnection of his family.

When John finds a pamphlet on funeral planning while snooping around Mr. Pignati's house, death starts becoming more real, and this proximity gives him "the creeps." For the first time, he reflects on how the various adults in his life, and his teachers at school, are really not preparing him, or any of the other kids, for life. They may learn about literature, for example, but, he notes, "I don't think there's a single kid in that whole joint who would know what to do if somebody dropped dead." These words, of course, turn out to be prophetic, because not long after, Mr. Pignati has his first heart attack, and he and Lorraine are stunned. John does know what to do—he calls the police—but emotionally, both John and Lorraine are stunned, frightened, and angry, and for the rest of the book, they're desperately trying to make sense of their pain, or escape from it.

When they visit Mr. Pignati in the hospital, his roommate is a very old, very ill man, and John remarks flippantly, "He looked like he wasn't long for this world ... a guy [who looked like he was 193 years old] with some kind of oxygen-tent thing nearby that looked like a malaria net." The patient, like the corpses moldering underground in the cemetery, is not seen as a real person, but as a sort of horror-movie prop, something to make the story more dramatic, and his suffering is not even considered.

However, secretly, John is affected by seeing Mr. Pignati so sick. He is frightened by how weak Mr. Pignati has become, and comments, "The smell of hospitals always makes me think of death."
When Mr. Pignati dies from a second heart attack, which is brought on by the news of Bobo the baboon's death, John finally realizes that it does matter to him that "I live in a world where you can grow old and be alone and have to get down on your hands and knees and beg for friends," and that he's now sharply aware that if he and Lorraine hadn't come along, "the Pigman would've just lived like a vegetable until he died alone in that dump of a house." He asks, "Didn't [Lorraine] know how sick to my stomach it made me feel to know it's possible to end your life with only a baboon to talk to?"

He realizes that everyone he knows—he, Lorraine, his parents, and Lorraine's mother—are all spending their lives concentrating on the wrong things: money, career, bad relationships in the past. No one in the book, except Mr. Pignati, is truly "awake" in daily life, living fully, living now.

By the end of the book, John knows that death does have a deep effect on the survivors, and that although he wants to pursue his own dream, his fun, and his individuality, as he tells his father, he knows now that he can't just pursue his own interests without considering their effects on others. Rollerskating with Mr. Pignati was just a game, but it had disastrous consequences when Mr. Pignati had his heart attack. Holding a party seemed like harmless fun, but it too got out of hand, and in the end, led to Mr. Pignati's second heart attack at the zoo—after the culminating event, the baboon Bobo's death. In the last analysis, John realizes that an awareness of death sharpens one's sense of responsibility and meaning. As he puts it in one of the last sentences of the book, "Our life would be what we made of it—nothing more, nothing less."

Source: Kelly Winters, Critical Essay on The Pigman, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Winters is a freelance writer and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers.

Humor, Bathos, and Fear: An Interview with Paul Zindel

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Though there is some disagreement as to the exact date that young adult literature emerged as a separate and distinct genre from that for children and adults, scholars agree that a handful of novels led the way, broke new ground, and prepared the soil for what was to grow into a blooming genre. The Pigman by Paul Zindel is one of those touchstone books that set apart novels for adolescents. It did more than that, however. Zindel's remarkable novel set the standard for writers to follow. Mr. Zindel (or, as I address him, Paulissimus) recently found time to share his thoughts and feelings about writing for the YA audience.

[TL:] Your first novel for young adults,The Pigman, broke such new ground. It is considered by many in the field to be the first truly YA book. What is your reaction to all of this?

[PZ:] I'm glad someone noticed. When Charlotte Zolotow, then an editor and author at HarperCollins, asked if I had any stories for teenagers in me, I went into classrooms and interviewed kids. I found out that in a group of a hundred boys, only two or three had read a single book. That book was always Catcher in the Rye. Sometimes one of the boys had read a second book. That was always Lord of the Flies. I asked the boys why they read those books and they told me it was because their girlfriends made them read it. I realized fairly quickly that there weren't many books around that showed teenage protagonists in a modern reality concerned with realistic problems—so I gave it a shot.

Did you think you were writing for a younger audience?

I knew I was writing for high school students. My first audiences were juniors and seniors, and as the years went by, the audiences got younger and younger. Most kids who read the book today are in the seventh or eighth grades.

Had you any suspicions that this book would be considered a "classic" in the field more than 25 years after publication?

I had made a wise choice long ago not to use slang or curses, because those are things that really date a book. I was also fortunate that my writing and speaking voice uses hyperbole and bathos naturally—something that had to do with the strong defenses I had to mount to survive growing up. I was lucky that these elements give the illusion of slang and oxymorons, without my being trapped by the changing language of youth.

Many of your books seem to explore the life and times of the misfit, the adolescent who does not seem to fit in. Is that a fair characterization?

Yes. I write about misfits, because I was a misfit growing up. I had no father at a time when that was considered freakish. I couldn't catch a baseball. I acted out and got involved in crazy, though relatively harmless, capers. I didn't know who I was or who I could be or what my career should be. I desperately wanted friends and to be liked, but my family moved around so much 1 never had the chance to keep very many friends. Most of my friends were misfits, too. I think being a misfit is a terrific requisite for becoming an author— becoming creative. When you're not doing so hot in the real world, you invent fictional worlds in which you can have a really spectacular and estimable life.

/ know that asking an author to name a favorite book is like asking them to name a favorite child. However, of which book are you the most proud and why?

Pride is not a quality I allow myself to feel. It takes time. Awards take time. Patting oneself on the back takes time. I'm too busy writing about oddballs and rats and cruel cheerleaders and phantasmagoric teachers to sit around evaluating or dreaming of reviews or looking back. Were I to do that, I would probably have to say that stories I think I could continue to live with, either in sequel or movie or other forms, would be The Pigman and I, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (a play), The Doom Stone, and several of the horror books. Oh, yes, I just remembered, I think the best book I've ever written may becoming out next year (2000). At the moment it's called The Gadget and it's my first historical novel— about the son of a physicist who lives at Los Alamos at the time when the first atomic bomb was being made. I think all the books that I'm really going to be proud of are still coming down the pike. With the benefit of history, I think I'm going to write some hot stuff.

You maintain a successful career writing for teens and for adults. Is it difficult to move between these two audiences?

Yes. I'm in a teen phase now. I talk, live and eat teens. I'm about 15 years old and I do very childish things and worry about extraordinary problems. I get jilted, go to movies, eat pizza and ice cream, hang out with my kids and lots of young people, and I don't notice that I'm three times their age. I am such a kid inside I can't imagine realizing that I'm almost old enough to die. I'm certain that death, when it comes, will take me by enormous surprise. I'll probably be getting ready to go on a roller coaster or attend a prom.

Your recent books (Loch, Reef of Death, Raptor, The Doom Stone) focus on teens facing incredible danger in the form of prehistoric life forms. How did the transition from misfit to monster occur?

I got tired of teenagers having problems. I felt the problems had all been written about for too long, and that kids were fed up with that posture. It also became somewhat disingenuous for adults to be writing about teenage problems when it's clear how mad and bizarre and foolish and dangerous and stupefying adult life has become. I wrote a one act play called "Every 17 Minutes the Crowd Goes Crazy." It's about the ultimate abandonment of parental interest by a mother and father who flee their five children to spend the rest of their selfish, frightened lives going to trotter race tracks and Native American Casinos. I wish it were a joke.

You seem to have a firm grip on what scares readers. What frightens you?

What frightens me is the thought that I might have a painful, massive heart attack, be shot in a home invasion, or have a rare and barbed tiny Amazon catfish swim into my urethra. I'm also frightened of my children being injured or shot at in a mini-market, being struck by lightning or a meteor, and being devoured feet first by, in order of horror, a crocodile, a great white shark, or a tiger in the swamps of Bengal, and dying of rabies.

/ know you travel quite a bit. Are you inspired to write after you have visited a certain location? Or does the idea come first and mandate a trip to the locale?

Yes! I came back from Indonesia and wrote a book about giant bats in the jungle canopy. I got to hold a giant fruit bat that opened its five-foot wing span. I came back from India and wanted to write about rats taking over Staten Island by coming up through the toilets in chic middle-class housing. My stories come from my life. Ideas emerge from where I am living, where I am visiting—and most powerfully, from people I meet. I love people. I love kids. The right kid or the right adult will set my mind spinning into an adventure that mesmerizes me for years. Next year I'm planning on growing up and I'm going to write about love and divorce. There are so many things I should have been told about love, and now that I know all the secrets, I want to share them. I think I could write some startling stuff about the urge to merge.

What do you hear from readers?
My readers are fabulous and send me great fan mail and stuffed bears and prehistoric alligator teeth. I'm starting to give out my email address all over the place now because that's the easiest way for me to have a maddening career but keep in touch with the great kids and librarians and teachers. My e-mail is I want to hear from the kids of the world, and this year I'm going to have a web site that will make my competition drool from its graphics and hilarity and emotional depth and truth and all kinds of things.

If you had to select a scene or chapter from one of your works to be placed in an anthology for the year 2000 literature books, which would that be and why?

It would be a scene from my play "Marigolds"—a scene where the mother is yapping at her daughter about the half life of the seeds the daughter has planted, and the mother's own half life as a human being. I would pick that scene because I think it is a dram of the true elixir. The writing soars because the literary metaphor of atomic radiation and the heartbreaking universal emotion of the mother melds with an extraordinary balance of irony and humor—and proof in spades that I have vision and talent, originality and compassion. It puts my best foot forward. I know it.

Source: Teri Lesesne, "Humor, Bathos, and Fear: An Interview with Paul Zindel," in Teacher Librarian, Vol. 27, No. 2, December 1999, pp. 60-62.

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